The golden heart of Brazil
By Dennis Collaton
The term “lost in time” is an overused and hackneyed phrase bandied about by travel brochure writers the world over. There are certainly numerous locations across the globe that deserve the title, but only a very few serve as a benchmark.
One such location is the historic town of Ouro Preto located 400 kilometres north of Rio de Janeiro. Founded in 1698 by Portuguese explorers from São Paulo, it marks the location of its famous namesake “black gold” discovered there and was the site of the first real “gold rush” in the Americas.
After some initial anarchy, the following century was quite literally, Ouro Preto’s golden age. During this time a great many artists, sculptors, scientists, architects and of course, clergymen, flocked to the area now located in the state of Minas Gerais (loosely translated to mean “centre of mining”).
Wealth and affluence grew exponentially in the area and soon vast mansions, public buildings and churches appeared across the city, each vying for the title of most magnificent structure. By the time of the republic in 1889, the riches were all but exhausted and the city was in danger of falling into neglect. In a bold move expressly designed to preserve the cultural integrity of the old city, the seat of local government was moved to the newly constructed city of Belo Horizonte.
In a time when rampant expansion paid little heed to heritage, Ouro Preto stood then, as it does today, as a beacon of cultural preservation. In 1933 the whole city received historic status as a “cidade monumento” and when UNESCO began listing sites of cultural significance in its new “World Heritage” program, Ouro Preto was among the first to be inscribed in 1980.
Today visitors can wander the unspoilt streets of this expansive and perfectly preserved Baroque museum featuring many works by the now legendary sculptor Aleijadinho. Crowned by the magnificent churches of São Francisco de Assis, Nossa Senhora do Pilar and Nossa Senhora da Conceição, it is not just these opulent constructions that form the inheritance of Ouro Preto. Bridges, fountains and mansions of locally quarried soapstone, instead of marble, all contribute to the total atmosphere of this fascinating living museum.